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October 19, 1998
by Ben Williams, Anicee Gaddis, and Lissa Townsend Rodgers
  black starBlack Star
"Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star"
(Rawkus Records)

"So much on my mind that I can't recline/Blasting holes in the night till she bled sunshine/Breathe in/Inhale vapors from bright stars that shine/Breathe out/Breathe smoke we trace the skyline/Heard the bass ride out like an ancient mating call/I can't take it y'all/I can feel the city breathing/Chest heaving/Against the flesh of the evening/Sigh before it die like the last train leaving."

So goes the chorus to Black Star's "Respiration," and if its litany of city scenes unfolds in your ears on a late-night subway to Brooklyn, you're experiencing ideal listening conditions. Black Star are introverted in a way nobody has been since A Tribe Called Quest, yet less self-consciously jazzy; rather than flow smoothly round a fat double bassline, their compositions ebb and swell to the rhythms of melancholy guitar lines and muted piano chords. Mos Def and Talib Kweli are two Brooklyn MCs who've already proven themselves with solo releases like "Ultramagnetic," "Bodyrock," and "The Lesson" on Rawkus Records, the label that's been driving this year's indie hip-hop renaissance. It's a velvet revolution, though: Blackstar rock KRS-1 beats and party chants on "Definition," unleash some old-school breaks on "B Boys Will B Boys," and generally infuse their music with plenty of Jamaican flavor, but they never really convince as jam masters; the overriding mood of their debut album is complexity

For the most part, that's a good thing. If the reserved beats make Black Star's cover of Slick Rick's "Children's Story" sound lackluster and their dissing on "Hater Players" somewhat tame, well, there's plenty to compensate: the smooth-like-honey licks of "Brown Skin Lady," the gorgeously gentle call to arms of "KOS (Determination)," the tumbling ceremonial melody of "Twice Inna Lifetime." The lyrics are superb throughout, the kind of internally twisting rhymes that bear, indeed require, repeated listening. Mos Def and Kweli reference everything from fiber-optics and the NASDAQ index to the third eye and Mohammed; archetypal black postmoderns, they weave hi-tech futurism and ancient philosophies into intelligent poetics.

While I do wonder how smart anyone who thinks Marcus Garvey's anachronistic back-to-Africanism still has something to offer can be (Black Star take their name from his repatriation shipping line), Garvey is less a specific political influence on the record, and more a generalized reference point for black wholeness and self-respect. Whether Mos Def and Talib Kweli's attempts to find a moral center will have much impact on hip hop in general is doubtful; this record doesn't shout loud enough to be heard, and—"Definition" and its bumptious reggae remix "RE:DEFinition" aside—it doesn't contain any hit singles. That's probably a good thing; the worst thing that could happen to Black Star is for them to get tagged as this year's De La Soul. They're deeper and more original than that, and this record is a quiet gem.

—Ben Williams


Black Star
"Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star"

Lewis Parker
"Masquerades & Silhouettes"

A Tribe Called Quest
"The Love Movement"

September 14
Hepcat, Gomez, Bob Mould

August 31
Liz Phair, DJ Vadim, UNKLE

August 15
Deftones, Mary J. Blige, Neotropic

August 3
Chocolate Genius, The Fieldstones, Dimtri from Paris

July 20
MC Lyte, Fastball, Marc Ribot

July 6
Amon Tobin, Pullman, Jesus and Mary Chain

lewis parkerLewis Parker
"Masquerades & Silhouettes"

Despite his tender age of just 21, you can almost taste success dripping from the turntables when Lewis Parker makes beats. The newest addition to Massive Attack's Melankolic family, Parker has already crossed boundaries and turned over aging English soil. His first album comes across as a sort of teaser for "the next big thing," as he has referred to a forthcoming project. He seems to be a natural-born philosopher, warning about "masquerades, silhouettes, and fake charades" on the title track, "Fake Charades."

When asked how he got picked up by the Massives, the British born and bred B-boy said the Bristol-based group heard one of his 12-inches: "We just started talking and ended up sort of saying 'yeah.'" Massive's ringleader Grant Marshall has called Parker's sound "quite individual. A lot of English rap is just sort of a poor copy of the American counterpart. But Lewis comes with his own style."

The most striking thing about "Masquerades & Silhouettes" is Parker's choice of timeless and obscure samples—'60s film soundtracks and Middle Eastern riffs—second only to his aged-in-wood voice and intelligent rhymes. As a DJ, MC, and producer, he is a true scholar of the various pillars of hiphop, and Parker definitely runs his own show. "Crusades," with its invocation to "all my brave hearts," reads like a sci-fi fairytale. The cool preaching heard on "Songs of the Desert" uncovers reality like a needle in a haystack ("The dead hold the answers/surrounded in cancer/oblivious/as they do their dances of life"). And the "Star Wars" myth has been his admitted obsession since the early days (to the point where you wonder if he would choose Yoda over the choicest female). But his skill for casually interweaving Jedi philosophy with street-smart argot definitely has its moments. "My laws are Jedi/my ally is the Force/and if you don't know/then check nature's force," he rhymes on "Shadows of Autumn (the dirty version)."

In the end, Parker's lyrics are forward-thinking, introspective, and imbue hip hop with an ominousness that American fluff has never achieved. Who would've thought the Brits could beat us statesiders at our own rap game?

—Anicee Gaddis

A Tribe Called Quest
"The Love Movement"

tribeThe "Love Movement" is the last A Tribe Called Quest album. Go ahead, take a moment, let the memories wash over you. Remember that springy little sample in "Bonita Applebum." Remember being exhausted and sweaty on the dance floor and getting that second wind the moment the first notes of "Scenario" pumped out of the speakers. Remember Tip cooing, "If I was working at the club you would not pay," one of music's greatest come-ons, in "Electric Relaxation." "The Love Movement" isn't a brilliant summation of a brilliant career, and you may be a little disappointed on the first try. But give it a few more spins: "The Love Movement" gets better with repeated listenings. It's a subtler record than previous Tribe efforts, more a record to chill to than dance to: a light touch on the snare, a bass percolating in the background, a lurking keyboard, a faint shimmer of vibes. "Start It Up" opens with a bassline and handclaps that flow into a simple kick beat, horn loops, and a rhythmic rhyme. "Against the World"'s organ sounds like it comes from a lounge down the hall, accompanied by maracas so faint they might be shaken by ghosts.

This low backdrop leaves space for the vocals to stand out, space for you to step back and appreciate just how damn good this crew is—Tribe's style may not be rapid-fire flashy, but the way they rhyme together is almost doo-wop in the mingling of voices. Phife and Tip solo, mingle, separate, rejoin, smooth as caramel and effortless as breathing. The Tribe are one of the few old-style units left; after the advent of the Wu-Tang, crews are more of a conglomeration of solo artists who take turns in the spotlight, rather than each rapper being a part of a continuous whole. Even the guest MCs fall right into the group flow—Busta Rhymes and Reggie Noble join in on "Steppin' It Up," jumping all over each other as Tip echoes their swaggering and eggs them on. "Give Me" features an appearance by Noreaga in a journey back to Queens, back in the day when "we had dreams about being MCs/and there was no concern about so-and-so/and these record companies"—and the Tribe actually sings! They're utterly charming and, what's more, they're in tune, though they do admit "Boyz II Men/ABC/BBD/We ain't none of them, see."

"The Love Movement" is about love for sure, most often love for the honeys, in that special innocent, romantic way the Tribe specializes in—that first look at the shorty of Tip's dreams, as he lays on her just how fine she is and just how good he's gonna treat her "forever or however you want it." But it's also about the love for the music. "My pad and my pen/The beat and the blend/The party won't end/Fill it with friends," they chant. The Tribesmen have promised that this isn't the final curtain—they'll still work together occasionally, and draw others into the fold. It's not an end, but the beginning of the next chapter. As if to insure that, the future Tribe turn over the last track, "Rock Rock Y'all," to four promising young MCs: Punchline, Jane Doe, Wordsworth, and Mos Def. The solid beat is the most traditionally hip-hop on the record and the kids all show themselves to be star students—particularly Mos Def's imperiously inflected oratorio and Wordsworth's 40-second snapshot of a rise from tenements to the top. "What we want everybody to know," says Tip at the close, "is that this is a family." I can't wait for the reunion.

—Lissa Townsend Rodgers

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